HERE at the good ship A.S.M we can admit when we’ve got something wrong, and we did not get the Six Nations right. Well, Jim got close.
Saturday’s action was exactly what fans had been longing for this entire competition; big hits, bold runs and fantastic play. All six teams came out like they had the trophy within reach and as much as I didn’t expect to be writing this, England deserved all the spoils. Triple Crown, Grand Slam, even the Calcutta Cup, which was seen as a tepid start to a championship, was a strong tactical performance. We’ve looked at the tournament and our own forecasts for the final standings and here’s what we found…
We start with Eddie Jones & Co, who had the greatest doubts hanging over them coming into these games. Had the World Cup shown them to be second-tier? What effective change could Jones and new captain Hartley bring onto the pitch? Were the only RWC winners in the northern hemisphere no longer relevant in the game?
After a winning but unconvincing debut for the new-look squad at Murrayfield there were as many questions as answers; but game upon game they built up their momentum, and by the time they reached Wales and France were more than convincing. The name on a lot of lips has been Maro Itoje, former England Under-20’s captain now starting Lock for the seniors, who after three appearances has proved to be one of the most intimidating players produced in years. Physically dominant and fast as a winger he will be one to watch for well over a decade.
Tuilagi returned to bring his brutal play-style, seemingly ideal for the new England, to the pitch after not having been selected for the World Cup squad. The decision to bring back a player convicted of assaulting three people last year was met with little hostility given the dire performance from the team in the autumn, and to have that power in at centre again was invaluable. So too was the ever-reliable Billy Vunipola, whose dominance at the back led to 72 carries, 24 beaten defenders and being named BBC Player of the Tournament. These stand-out performances in a team as strong as England have managed to become in only six months is remarkable, and though not unbeatable, they have certainly thrown down the gauntlet to everyone north of the equator.
Wales pulled a deserved second place from their games, with an opening day draw to Ireland leaving them with another hill to climb if they wanted to reach their last game against Italy playing for the win. Beating France and a lackluster Ireland kept them on course, but after forgetting to show up for the first 60 minutes against England there was too much to do and too little time to do it in.
Injuries once again played their part, and Halfpenny might still be out but the squad showed its depth and a lack of reliance on star players. This didn’t stop George North making a spectacular try against Italy in their finale though, and had he squeezed out a second the table could have looked like a mirror of the World Cup, Wales behind England this time but with a better points difference.
Scotland seemed to be tarred with the same brush as last year, labelled by commentators and pundits and ‘improving’. Had it not been for the last game against Ireland I would have disagreed with them, and despite a strong fight (Stuart Hogg’s try should be made compulsory viewing for all schoolchildren) their lack of discipline and Vern Cotter’s ‘ruck-and-run’ style were not the answer to an unwavering Ireland defence.
With Laidlaw and Hogg and Richie Gray there is some real talent in the squad right now but they seem to be lacking the consistency of other teams in the Six Nations, and it’s the slapdash play that’s preventing that kind of growth. Though they can have real success when the quick passes work, if they can’t build a competitive scrum and know when to make the vital carries they’ll struggle to ever become more than the Home Nation underdog.
Ireland seem the converse of the Scottish: Joe Schmidt has a well drilled, almost rehearsed team for set plays but with the exception of Johnny Sexton and the occasional break from Zebo it has looked like an uninspired campaign. After back-to-back victories in the series they would’ve hoped for more than third, especially in this less than emphatic style.
France and Italy will be unhappy about finishing below all the Home Nations, but neither showed any signs of fight until France tried to frighten England on the final day. Italy took the role of Six Nations punching bag once again, with a stinging -145 points difference and little to cheer about. Discussions of the introduction of the promotion/relegation place between this tournament and the European Nations Cup (AKA the Second-tier Six Nations) have been abuzz since Georgia came out to dominate it, winning since 2010. The Italians played with heart as they always do and made some dramatic moments, but whether they’re good enough to persist in this competition remains to be seen.
After all of this we were left with the final table…
…and none of us were close. Gavin merely had Wales to take the win, so he’s out. Alasdair didn’t see a Grand Slam and put France first, and Wales to take the Triple Crown, so that’s also wrong. Conner saw France and Italy last but thought a plucky Scotland had a win in them, so he’s missed, and I thought Wales would run away with it, and Scotland were primed to take silver. Super wrong.
Well done Jim, who called it correctly as England to win, Wales second, Ireland third, and Italy in last, but had Scotland pipped by France for fourth. Four out of six isn’t bad, but there’s always next year…